As the 4ooth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death brought with it an outpouring of new appreciation. However at the same time there has been some debate as to the worthwhile of adapting Shakespeare for new generations. The London based Hogarth Press persuaded eight popular modern novelists to retell or respond to their favourite Shakespeare play in novel format for today’s audience. Margaret Atwood, best known for her feminist dystopias, chose Shakespeare’s final solo authored play and possible goodbye to the stage; The Tempest.
On the release of the Hogarth Press novels, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker argued persuasively that Shakespeare, a jobbing writer and actor, would be somewhat bewildered by this turn of events. Stating that “Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion – three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not”. Shakespeare’s dramatic storylines that pulled in the London crowds have been muted and internalised and the outcast and dejected made sympathetic. This may work for a new audience but ultimately it pushes one back to the original; to seek out the certainty in order and forgiveness that has been lost over the centuries. However, if one is to argue that these novels push one back to the original plays is that a bad thing?
This argument seems to have been expected. For example Constance Grady at Vox focuses on the exciting plot lines to be developed from new adaptations. Once one is free of the language and poetry the storylines become open to response. From the literal island banishment of Prospero comes the figurative exile and prison of Atwood’s Felix.
The novel concerns theatre director Felix, who after losing his prestigious position at Makeshiweg Theatre Festival goes into hiding for several years before remerging as a prison literacy teacher. Having spent many years at the top as artistic director his plays had increasingly started to bewilder rather than charm the audience, and importantly the shareholders. His next production was to be The Tempest. This would bring him back to prominence and also give him the chance to resurrect his family and heal himself.
In the first few chapters Felix, who can be somewhat pompous and self-righteous, is the victim of an unexpected act of treachery that foists him from all he knows and leaves him plotting his revenge. “What was Felix waiting for? He hardly knew. A Chance opening, a lucky break? A pathway toward a moment of confrontation? A moment when the balance of power would lie with him. It was an impossible thing to wish for, but suppressed rage sustained hum. That, and his thirst for justice.”
Living in exile with thoughts of his daughter becoming increasingly real to him Felix is a shadow of his former self. Having named his daughter Miranda the chance to perform as Prospero gives Felix the chance to bring back his daughter. She had died shortly before the novel opens at the age of three. Their lives will parallel those of Prospero and his Miranda. As he lives out his days in the wilderness he allows himself to think her back into existence. “It was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him, only invisible. Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real”.
Instead of being set on an island Hagseed takes place in a prison: Fletcher Correctional Facility. Felix uses this as his chance to lure his old adversaries onto his territory. Will he seek vengeance in the end though or will this be his final curtain call? The idea to set the action in a literal prison was inspired. It offers the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that is necessary to make the character motivations seem believable. Throughout The Tempest there are many forms of imprisonment with every character being trapped and lacking control over their own destiny. In this light one can see how the characters come to take advantage of whatever skills or abilities they have to try to reassert their authority in a push for freedom.
Further Atwood latches on to the idea that more than any other play The Tempest is about production. “But above all, The Tempest is a play about a producer/director/playwright putting on a play – namely, the action that takes place on the island, complete with special effects – that contains another play, the masque of the goddesses. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, this one is most obviously about plays, directing and acting.”
This retelling is clever and self knowing. Hagseed is tremendous fun. It roars along tearing through the layers of acting, playing, identity, mischief and magic that mark Shakespeare’s final play. Although prior knowledge of The Tempest is helpful and will provide insight into the multiple layers Hagseed can, and should, be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with the play.
The title Hagseed refers to Caliban (it also comes from a list of swear words gathered from the text. Although he is granted the title of the novel his name is still used as an insult) however the novel is Felix’s (aka Prospero’s). Magic, control and power are played with throughout. The play is often thought to be Shakespeare’s goodbye to the theatre. As Prospero says goodbye to his magic books was the writer saying goodbye to his pen and paper? Similarly in Hagseed by recreating The Tempest will Felix either recapture Miranda or be finally ready to let her go. The father daughter relationship is beautiful although full of sorrow and softens Felix to the reader. It is this relationship that makes him seem human and damaged, rather than a power hungry. However it is surprising that Atwood set up the idea of a novel focusing on Caliban and then retreated from the idea.
The Tempest is an underappreciated play that contains more depth and feeling that often sighted at first glance. In Hagseed Atwood teases out the twin themes of grief and isolation to create a vital and surprising novel that does an excellent job of reimagining the storms and magic of the 1600s into music and special effects for today’s reader. This version perhaps leaves the reader with more hope than the original, with one being able to see a glimmer of life left for Felix. Most of all this is an excellent read from start to finish and can, and should, be enjoyed by all.
Hogarth Shakespeare. 2016. London. ISBN: 9781781090237